September 15, 2006
During the 1970s, before the AIDS epidemic, New York City's gay bathhouses were many in number and an accepted part of the gay lifestyle. People would "talk to each other and socialize" in lounges and snack bars, and sex "was part of the agenda instead of the whole agenda" like now, said Bill Stackhouse, director of the Institute for Gay Men's Health at Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC). At some bathhouses, rising stars like Bette Midler and Barry Manilow entertained patrons.
But with the arrival of AIDS, the city shut down most bathhouses. "Now they're looked upon as some last resort thing that you do privately and don't talk to your friends about," said Stackhouse.
GMHC volunteers visit the city's two bathhouses, midtown's East Side Club and Chelsea's West Side Club, distributing condoms and safe sex brochures to patrons twice a month. "Almost all of them take the condoms," said Mark Kornegay, a GMHC community health specialist.
Condoms are distributed in the two 24-hour clubs, where patrons can rent lockers and one of about 100, six- by eight-foot private rooms. Ten patrons interviewed said they did not practice unprotected sex.
"At least bathhouses are public and a place where you can educate people about disease prevention," unlike in private sex clubs or with online hookups, said John Riley of ACT UP-New York. "You can't get to them in other places."
State law prohibits operating a business for the purpose of sex. While city officials say they inspect the bathhouses, they maintain they are legally barred from looking inside the rented rooms. "We do not access private areas within establishments, 'private' meaning closed-door, to make observation," said Isaac Weisfuse, deputy commissioner for the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.